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Traditionalists argue that confession should be exempt from mandatory reporting of abuse

16 August 2023

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THE traditionalist group Forward in Faith, and The Society, of which it is part, have formally asked that mandatory reporting of child abuse not be applied to statements made under the seal of confession.

The seal is the priest’s obligation under canon law to hear a person’s confession of sin, or imagined sin, in complete confidence, so that nothing that the priest is told in that context will be repeated or disclosed under any circumstances. This is also the rule of the Roman Catholic Church.

Mandatory reporting — without religious exception — was one of the key recommendations in the final report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) last year (News, 21 October 2022). The recommendation specifies that this would not apply to situations in which a child is aged between 13 and 16 years old, and it is reasonably believed that the relationship is consensual and not intimidatory, exploitative, or coercive, and that the child has not been harmed and is not at risk of being harmed; and also when there is a difference in age of no more than three years between consenting parties.

In its formal response to IICSA in May, the Government said that, while it accepted the need for mandatory reporting, and agreed to a “regime” to enact this, this would be informed by “a full public consultation, beginning with the publication of a Call for Evidence” (News, 26 May).

The Society and Forward in Faith published their response to this public consultation on Wednesday of last week. It asks that a further “exception be added to make provision for the Seal of the sacrament of Confession, as practised in the Roman Catholic Church and parts of the Church of England”.

It gives three reasons for this. First, that “the loss of the Seal would take away from survivors a safe space for disclosure and would be doing so against the incredibly remote contingency, and unproven concern, that perpetrators will abuse the Seal. This will not make us a safer Church. Rather it will take away from many victims and survivors a place in which a journey of healing can begin.”

It argues that “the priest is bound by the Seal, but the penitent is not,” and that it was “not aware” that the seal was “in some way misused by priests to cover up instances of child sexual abuse”.

Second, it suggests that enforcing mandatory reporting would be “incredibly difficult” and impractical. “We would need comprehensive government guidelines for clergy on what is disclosable and what is not. . . The very essence of sacramental Confession is that it is a private, confidential encounter. It is far from clear how such an arrangement could be satisfactorily ‘policed’ by secular authorities.”

Finally, it argues that any law enforcing disclosure would compromise religious freedom and conscience. “We find it alarming that the Government is considering allowing the State to overhear the most intimate conversation between confessor and penitent and thereby potentially denying people the opportunity to deal with sin in confidence.”

It describes confidentiality as “an essential ingredient” of confession which “must therefore remain ‘sealed’ by the sacrament. To qualify it in certain circumstances would be to undermine the sacrament altogether and would represent a major theological problem for us.

“We therefore regard the retention of the Seal of Confession to be a matter of religious freedom and conscience. We stress that these are deeply held matters of religious faith and conviction, based on many centuries of practice throughout the world.”

The response is signed by the chairman of the Society’s Council of Bishops, the Bishop of Wakefield, the Rt Revd Tony Robinson, and seven other bishops, including the Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Philip North, and the Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner.

They acknowledge that their response would bring “concerns for some survivors and victims of child sexual abuse in the Church”.

In return, they offer “a pledge of our sincerity in setting forth our strongly held position”, “our deep revulsion at the many examples of child sexual abuse in the Church”, and “a statement of our understanding of the healing role which sacramental Confession, including its Seal, can play”.

Appended to the letter is a first-hand account from an anonymous Anglo-Catholic priest who recounts hearing “literally hundreds of confessions” and a “number of first safeguarding disclosures, made by frightened, often ashamed, survivors of abuse who are testing what will happen if they begin to speak about what has been for them unspeakable”.

He writes that “it is clear to me that but for the airlock — the sanitised oxygen tent — of the sealed confessional they might have taken years longer to, indeed may never have been able to, take the risk of speaking out. And, as a consequence, their abusers might never have been exposed, or prevented from perpetuating the cycle of destruction.”

He also states: “I have never had an abuser confess their abuse to me” and concludes: “It would be a dreadful misunderstanding of the reality of sacramental Confession, and the reality of many survivors’ experience — of that terrifying vulnerability upon which every single prosecution and the prevention of continued violation depends — to make the confessional a less safe space to enter.”

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